An Exodus Theme in Revelation 15 and 16

Studies in Revelation—Lesson 26

by Reta Halteman Finger

Old Orthodox Apocalipse Wall-painting from medieval Osogovo Monastery, Republic of Macedonia
Old Orthodox Apocalypse Wall Painting
from medieval Osogovo Monastery, Republic of Macedonia
by Edal Anton Lefterov (Own work)
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A new section begins with Revelation 15 and 16, which is a bit like jumping from the frying pan of the harvest judgment in chapter 14 into the fire of planetary annihilation. Or, to use more biblical terminology, we first experience another heavenly interlude in Revelation 15:1-5, followed by a third series of disasters upon the earth delivered by seven angels in 15:6-8.

Finally, in chapter 16, the angels pour out their bowls of plagues upon the earth without restraint. No more limiting the destruction to one-third of earth and sky, as in the trumpet series (8:6-12). This series is, according to 15:1, “the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended.” From John’s perspective, the final seventh bowl brings about the destruction of the “great city” of Babylon/Rome (16:19). Chapters 17 and 18, then, describe in excruciating detail how it will fall apart.

Singing first—and always

But before these plagues are poured out upon the earth, John begins with what logically should be placed at the end of these disasters: the rejoicing in heaven by “those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name” (15:2). Instead, 15:1-4 serves a prophetic purpose, reassuring those who are faithfully following the slaughtered Lamb. It presents a picture both of what is now and of what is to come. It is also linked to the past through a web of allusions to the Exodus story of the Israelite liberation from Egyptian slavery. Though John has alluded to this pivotal event many times before, the parallels in Revelation 15 and 16 are the most vivid and sustained.

Revelation 15:2 calls to mind a throng of former slaves having just crossed the Red Sea with their pursuers nowhere in sight. Safely on the shore, they sing the songs of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15:1-21. John calls the Red Sea a “sea of glass” (as in Rev. 4:6) “mixed with fire,” (as in Rev. 8:5, symbolizing God’s just wrath on the Egyptian oppressors).

Like previous heavenly intercalations in Revelation 7:9-12 and 11:15-18, a hymn of rejoicing follows in 15:3-4. The Song of Moses becomes the Song of the Lamb—the “new song” of Revelation 14:3. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza notes that nearly every word in the hymn is drawn from the Hebrew Bible, especially from Moses’s song in Exodus 15:1-8 and Deuteronomy 32:4—but also from Psalms 86:8-10 and 111:2. She continues:

Here, like Caesar, God is called king of the nations. The new song of Revelation announces liberation and salvation not only for the Christian community, but also for all nations which are now oppressed and longing for the experience of God’s justice.…Like the chorus in a Greek drama, this hymn interprets the meaning and intention of the preceding and following visions of cruel judgment. Their goal is justice and salvation (Revelation: Vision of a Just World, p. 92).

After the hymn, preparations are made for the final series of judgments. The “tent of witness” (Rev. 15:5) was a portable shrine used in the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings (Numbers 17:7; 18:2) as a sign of God’s presence. Now this tent witnesses to the Lamb and goes with the New Israel on its new exodus (Resseguie, The Revelation of John, p. 207). The seven angels emerge from the temple, dressed as Jewish priests in “pure bright linen with golden sashes” (Rev. 15: 6) to emphasize the importance of their task. The temple is filled with smoke from the glory of the Lord. James Resseguie calls the smoke “God’s outer garment,” which reveals the divine presence but conceals God’s face (see Exod. 13:21; 14:19, 24; 24:15-16; 40:34-38; 1 Kgs 8:10-12; Isa 6:1-6). Seeing God’s face is reserved for the final vision in Revelation 22:4 (Resseguie, pp. 207-208).

The plagues of Egypt magnified

Then one of the four living creatures (see 4:6b) gives “the seven angels seven golden bowls, full of the wrath of God” (15:7). Bowls were broad, shallow vessels used throughout the ancient world to carry offerings and libations. It is significant that these are the same golden bowls which held the prayers of the saints in Revelation 5:8b. (See an example of such a prayer in 6:9-11). The text never uses the term “punishment” for the content of the bowls; rather, they are the justice of God on those who oppress other nations and persecute those who refuse to wear the mark of the beast.

As the bowls are poured out in chapter 16, any reader knowing the story of Exodus and the plagues visited on Egypt will see the parallels here: the painful sores, the sea and rivers turning to blood, the darkness covering the land, and so on. The poems of the angel and the altar’s response in 16:4-7 underscore the justice of God on those “who have shed the blood of saints and prophets” (v. 6). But even though the first five plagues affect the whole cosmos (unlike the “one-third” effect of the seven trumpets in chapters 8 and 9), the people do not repent (16:11).

Actions have consequences

As mentioned above, the disasters poured out in the seals, trumpets, and bowls are not arbitrary or imposed by some external authority.  Schüssler Fiorenza understands God’s justice “as the conviction that each act brings about consequences which must be faced responsibly. It is God who has the power to make sure that all people have to bear the consequences of their actions” (p. 95).

The sixth and seventh bowls refer to the Roman Empire of John’s day. In this vision he connects the end of the age to the fall of Rome, possibly aided by the Parthians, the “kings of the east” in 16:12. Because of the reference to “Har-mageddon” (Mount Megiddo?) in 16:16 and the current ferment among Christian Zionists who view this location as the site of an actual future military battle, I will save further discussion of this for the next lesson.


Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. Remembering John’s technique of using intercalation and recapitulation in his apocalypse, what aspects of Revelation 15 and 16 could be classified as one or the other? (For example, how do the bowls recap the seals and trumpets?)
  2. Explain why John alludes so much to the Exodus story of liberation from slavery. How might it speak to contemporary readers of Revelation?
  3. How would you articulate John’s understanding of past, present, future, or the eternal present?
  4. Do the first five plagues have any current significance in light of our changing climate?


Sources used:

Boring, Eugene. Revelation. Interpretation Commentaries. John Knox Press, 1989. Pp. 172-176.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Proclamation Commentaries. Augsburg Fortress, 1991. Pp. 91-95.

Resseguie, James L. The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009. Pp. 205-208.


Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.